Research Process


Fiona Candlin

On Friday 26th January, the Mapping Museums project reached the end of its first phase, and for us, it felt like a momentous date. For the last fifteen months Dr Jamie Larkin and I have been compiling a huge dataset of all the museums that have been or were open at any point between 1960 and now. That information has now been finalised and handed over to the computer science researcher to be uploaded. In the coming weeks, we will be able to start analysing our material and generating findings about the past sixty years of museum practice in the UK.

The dataset of museums synthesises information from a wide variety of different sources. We started with DOMUS (The Digest of Museum Statistics), which was a huge survey of museums conducted in the mid 1990s and with the 1963 Standing Committee Review of Provincial Museums. These captured a large number of museums that were open in the mid to late twentieth century, but have since closed. We then added current records and information from the Arts Council England (ACE) accreditation scheme, and from the national records gathered by from both Museum Galleries Scotland (MGS), and the Welsh Museums Libraries Archives Division (MALD) and the Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC), since these lists both include non-accredited venues museums. The Association of Independent Museums (AIM) gave us a list of the museums that have been members their membership records and we also managed to find the results of a very old survey that they had conducted in the 1980s in the University of Leicester Special Collections library. This was research gold for it identified very small museums that are extremely difficult to trace once they have closed.

We included around half of the historic houses that are listed in the Historic Houses Association guidebook, and a number of properties that are managed by English Heritage, Historic Environment Scotland, or CADW. Deciding which venues reasonably constituted museums was a difficult process and one that we did in consultation with senior managers and curators of those associations, colleagues from the Museums Development Network and with the ACE accreditation team, although the final decisions were our own.

In the course of researching my last book Micromuseology: an analysis of independent museums, I had compiled a list of very small idiosyncratic museums, and these were added into our rapidly growing list, as were a surprisingly long list of museums that were listed online but not in any of our other sources. We then checked our dataset against the Museums Association ‘Find A Museum Service’ and against two huge gazetteers The Directory of Museums and Living Displays and The Cambridge Guide to the Museums of Britain and Ireland edited by Kenneth Hudson and Ann Nicholls in 1985 and 1987 respectively. Finally, we also consulted the Museums Association Yearbook at five yearly intervals from 1960 until 1980 and also a variety of publications that listed historic houses that were open to the public. In all cases, any venues that we had previously missed were added.

Having established a long list of museums we needed to ensure that we had a correct address, and the opening and closing dates for each venue. We also wanted to establish its governance, whether it was national, local authority, university, or independent, and if the later, if it was managed by a charitable trust or by a private group. Finding this information necessitated months of emailing and telephone calls, and we often ended up speaking to the children of people who had founded museums, or to members of local history associations in the relevant area. Even so, the process of compiling our dataset was not yet finished for we also needed to classify each museum by subject matter. In order to do this we devised our own classification system and considered each venue on an individual basis. It is little wonder that major museum surveys are infrequently undertaken.

The next phase of the research is analysing the data, so watch this space for updates. The first findings on museum opening and closure will be presented at ‘The Future of Museums in a Time of Austerity’ symposia at Birkbeck on February 24th 2018. We will also be tweeting about interesting aspects of our analysis, so don’t forget to follow us @museumsmapping on twitter.

Copyright Fiona Candlin January 2018.


AIM! I’m going to map forever…

Last week the Mapping Museums team attended the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) annual conference hosted at Chatham Historic Dockyard. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the foundation of AIM, which itself gives a good indication as to the moment when the growth of independent museums began to gather pace. As our project is working to map historical trends within the independent museums sector, the conference gave us the perfect opportunity to talk to colleagues with a long and deep involvement with independent museums and to meet those who had recently joined the organisation.

More specifically, we attended the conference for two reasons. The first was to create greater awareness of our project, which we hoped would help forge connections among both professionals and those responsible for running individual sites. The second was more prosaic; we aimed to actively gather data from delegates over the course of the two-day event and put more museums on the map!

Publicising the project

The main method of communicating Mapping Museums was a lecture as part of a session on partnerships between universities and museums. The project’s Principal Investigator, Professor Fiona Candlin, provided an overview of our project, emphasising that the museums sector currently lacks comprehensive data, and that our research would chart the growth of independent museums in relation to a host of cultural, political and economic factors.

Professor Fiona Candlin addressing attendees of the AIM conference


The lecture was well attended and this exposure led to both  conversations with sector staff who approached the project team later in the day and a significant increase in activity on our Twitter feed (@museumsmapping). These interactions were helpful for a few reasons. On the one hand we were able to discuss forms of practical help for the project and establish new contacts. But for the most part it was reassuring to exchange stories about the difficulties we face with issues like defining museums and knowing that these are shared problems (and frustrations!) across the sector.

It was also useful to talk to subject specialists about issues particular to their museums. Chatting to a delegate responsible for historic windmills about whether they should be counted as museums, she offered her insight that they should so long as their primary operating revenue came from visitors, rather than auxiliary uses such as producing artisanal flour. Meanwhile, delegates from a historic ship talked to us about whether it should be referred to as a museum or as a visitor attraction, and the difficulties of mapping some vessels that could be moored in different locations.

A highlight of the conference was the opportunity to meet Rob Shorland-Ball, a long-time AIM member and museum consultant who was responsible for depositing the AIM archive at the University of Leicester. By doing so he has been instrumental in helping us to record around 200 (often closed) museums that we have found looking through this material, and which we may not have located otherwise. It was great to inform him about the project and thank him for his efforts. Such interactions, particularly with historical data collection, have helped to humanise the research.


Delegates helping with the data collection

In terms of the practical matter of collecting data at the conference, we did this by manning a stall in the exhibition hall. Here delegates could come and talk to the project team, check to see if their museum was in our database and add (or amend) their entry if not. In particular we were eager for delegates to tell us if museums were open or closed, and to give us an idea of their subject matter. The benefit of this was that experts – people ‘on the ground’ working at these museums– could corroborate, and add to, our data.

To make the process as easy as possible we created A3 paper catalogues of our database with entries listed in alphabetical order. This meant that delegates could easily browse entries and had enough space to make additions We also had our computer database on hand in case of any problems in finding museums (for example, if the Barnstaple Museum was recorded as the Museum of Barnstaple).

AIM delegates helping with our data collection


In addition to this, we also had on show a prototype of our computer mapping model, demonstrated by Nick Larsson, the project’s computer science researcher. The benefit of bringing the model (and we needed to a substantially reconfigure a laptop to do so!) was that visitors could experience the whole of the research process; once they had checked their entry they were able to see how the data would be visualised and its functionality, and thus think about how they could use such a resource once it is finalised.

The vast majority of the delegates that we spoke to were very enthusiastic about the project and some returned to the stall with their friends to encourage them to participate. As a result, delegates made additions to data over 60 entries and offered suggestions of museums were hadn’t heard of. As a result, we are now aware of the John Lewis Heritage Centre, the Christchurch Tricycle Museum (1984-1999), and the Wigston Folk Museum (1981-1990)! We were also given names of regional experts and offers of help to map museums at a local level. Indeed, despite the cutting-edge technological aspect of the project, our ability to collect (often obscure) information is still largely reliant on traditional forms of networked knowledge; an old fashioned form of crowdsourcing.

New data!


Overall, the conference was a success on a number of fronts. Our project is much more visible as a result and we have a trove of data and helpful regional contacts. Beyond these tangible outcomes, the most encouraging aspect of the exercise was to be realise that we are working as part of a sector of professionals who have a great deal of enthusiasm for a project detailing museum history, and who are willing to do as much as they can to help add to this knowledge.


© Jamie Larkin          June 2017

Research Process

Problems with the Data

When I first began this research I had assumed that there was very little data on the museums that were founded in the late twentieth century. In fact, the contrary is true. A great deal of information has been collected about museums from the 1960s onwards. By our reckoning there were at least nine major cross-UK surveys, three that concentrated on Wales, two on Ireland, and one apiece on museums in Scotland and England. Dozens of smaller surveys concentrated on specific regions or aspects of the sector, Arts Council England keeps lists of museums across the UK, and the Museums Association runs a Find-A-Museum service. Why then, is it so hard to get information about the rising numbers of museums? In this blog I identify five reasons why this massive amount of data has not translated into information.


  1. Lost data

The first major survey that falls within our time period is the Standing Commission Report on Provincial Museums of 1963. Very conveniently, it is available in print form from major public libraries, and contains both the final report of the committee and a complete list of museums sorted according to region. From there onwards, however, the raw data largely disappears from government publications on the subject. The 1973 Standing Commission report, for instance, enumerates the different types of museums and provides an overview of emerging trends, but it does not provide a list of museums or the information that relates to individual venues, which we need if we are to track the emergence and development of the sector. As far as we know, the original data that was collected for that survey and for subsequent surveys conducted by the Standing Commission has been lost.

Research on museums conducted by other organisations is similarly missing. In 1983, the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) undertook a large-scale survey of that sector, but they do not seem to have published a report, and initially we were only aware of the survey’s existence from a handful of references in other contemporaneous sources. After some time, however, we found photocopies of the typewritten lists and the original survey questionnaires lodged in a university archive. We have been less successful in finding the information associated with the ‘UK Data base project’ of 1987. The Museums Association, which ran the survey, has a small in-house archive and its historic materials are kept at University College London. Unfortunately, neither archive contains any of the relevant materials. No-body in either organisation has any recollection of the survey taking place or any idea of where the material went, although it is likely that the UK Data base materials were thrown out when the Museums Association moved offices earlier this century.

  1. Indecipherable data

A second problem for researchers interested in the museums of the late twentieth century is whether the data is usable or not. One of the most important surveys of UK museums was the

Digest of Museum Statistics, otherwise known as DOMUS. From 1994 to 1998, it collected information on all accredited museums, some 1700, and generated a huge amount of material. When the project was closed, most of the paperwork was deposited in the National Archives and so researchers can easily find and download documents pertaining to the surveys. The problem is, the material is difficult to decipher. As well as some documentary material, the archive consists of three folders, each containing around fifty files that contain the raw data from DOMUS. All of the folders and files have coded names. The files comprise of spreadsheets with numerous columns that have similarly opaque headings. Some sheets are virtually empty, while others contain over two thousand entries. There is no explanation as to how these tables relate to each other, what the files or columns refer to, or how the user is supposed to decipher them. Using this data requires someone to unlock the coding system and re-constitute the original database.

  1. Data that is not easily accessible

The Museums Association currently compiles the most extensive dataset relating to UK museums. Their Find-A-Museum service lists information on the whereabouts, visitor numbers, staff, subject matter and governance of around two thousand museums. However, the Museums Association is a commercial enterprise and accessing this data incurs a fee. Users must pay to join the association and cover the subscription charges for the Find A Museum Service, at a minimum cost of around £186 for an individual or £450 for an organisation. In addition, the data cannot be downloaded or manipulated, and can only be examined via the service’s own rather limited search engine. Find-A-Museum is intended for museum professionals who want to look up information on specific venues, and is not designed with researchers in mind, but it does mean that one of the most substantial data sources on museums to be available in the UK cannot be used for broader analysis.

Other lists and surveys of museums are compiled by the various government bodies that oversee museums, namely, the Arts Council England (ACE), the Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC), Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS), and the Welsh Museums, Archives, Libraries Division (MALD). These organisations do not publish their data although they do make it available on request and without charge. In our experience, the four government bodies have been very helpful in the provision of data but we are aware that they do not have staff whose role it is to deal with such requests and there is no automatic or established mechanism by which data can be obtained.


  1. Incompatible data formats

Having acquired data from the various surveys and lists conducted by ACE, NIMC, MGS, and MALD, researchers will find that each of the government bodies collects different data, with significant variations in the level of detail, and about slightly different kinds of organisations over a range of dates. The spreadsheets cannot be simply merged. Moreover, if researchers want to include historic data, as we do, this all has to be transcribed by hand.


  1. Partial and missing data

On collating the available information, researchers might spot a further problem, which is that surveys and lists compiled by government bodies invariably concentrate on accredited museums. The accreditation scheme, which is co-ordinated by Arts Council England, establishes that a museum has achieved professional standards, but small independent museums often lack the staff or the know-how to apply for accreditation, or may not meet the criteria set by the scheme. Museums Galleries Scotland and the Museums Archives Libraries Division in Wales invite non-accredited museums to make themselves known and they do list such venues in their reports and on websites, although submitting data still requires a certain degree of professional capacity or interest. Thus as far as the official reports are concerned, small independent museums are routinely omitted. Indeed, the only survey to have actively sought information on such venues was the one conducted by AIM in 1982/3, and never published.

There are also other omissions. Properties owned by the National Trust register in some surveys and not in others, while few surveys include art galleries that do not have permanent collections, so established venues such as the Baltic in Newcastle or the Whitechapel in London rarely appear in the data.

Finally, information that is essential to a historically minded researcher is less relevant to museum professionals who focus on the current environment. Only one of the surveys registered the foundation dates of museums, and none have listed closure. Once the doors of a museum have been shut to the public, that venue ceases to appear in surveys.


In summary, then: Over the last five decades several associations and government departments have collected an enormous amount of information about UK museums. There is no lack of data. There are problems with archiving, making that information comprehensible and accessible, with sharing data across national and organisational borders, with collecting historical data and information on venues that do not reach professional standards or that do not quite fit an orthodox model of museums, and on compiling data. These factors help explain why researchers cannot elucidate recent developments within the museum sector and specifically the emergence of independent museums. There is a wider question, however, about why arts organisations seem to have been so poor at keeping, managing and sharing data. Thoughts on that matter would be welcome, as indeed would any clues as to the whereabouts of the data collected for the 1987 UK Museums database project and for Standing Commission surveys other than the 1963 publication.

©Fiona Candlin May 2017